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The Westminster Confession: a critique

The Westminister Confession of Faith is a 17th-century document which was drawn up at a particular point in Scottish and UK history. It continues to wield very significant influence on how presbyterian churches are run and what they believe. However it is a mixed bag.

 

 

The Westminster Confession of Faith

‘We claim no infallibility for [the Confession], or for ourselves who declare our belief in the propositions which it contains. It is the Word of God which only abideth forever... It is open to the Church at any time to say, “We have obtained clearer light over one or other or all of the propositions contained in this Confession, we must review it; the time has come for us to frame a new bond of union with each other, a new testimony to the world.” If this freedom do not belong to us, then indeed we are in bondage to our Confession, and renounce the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free.’
Rev. William Wilson (Free Church Moderator, 1866)

"I look on Catechisms as mere landmarks against heresey. If there had been no heresey, they wouldn't have been wanted. It's putting them out of their place to look on them as magazines of truth. There's some of your sour orthodox folk just over-ready to stretch the Bible to square with their Catechism; all very well, all very needful as a landmark, but what I say is, do not let that wretched, mutilated thing be thrown between me and the Bible."
Rev. Thomas Chalmers
(speaking on the right use of Confessions of Faith).

When the Church says to both ministers and people, “This is my Confession of Faith: if anything in it appear to you inconsistent with the Word of God, I am prepared to go with you to the Word of God to settle the matter”, then does the Church speak according to her place.
But if instead of this she says, “This I have fixed to be the meaning of the Word of God, and you cannot take any other meaning without being excluded from my communion; and to entitle me to exclude you I do not need to prove to you that what you hold and teach is contrary to my Confession of Faith”; I say, if the Church of Christ use this language she no longer remembers her place as a Church.
Rev. John Macleod Campbell
(deposed in 1831 by the Church of Scotland for preaching
‘assurance of faith’ and ‘unlimited atonement’)
Ref 1 Ref 2 Ref 3

Preamble:

This is the second in a series of articles which were prompted in the summer of 2009 by the question of Sunday sailings to the Hebridean island of Lewis. The issue – by no means to the only one, locally or universally – is tied up with how we understand the Mosaic Law and how the church responds to that view.
It was felt then, and indeed is still the case, that a superficial response would merely reiterate what has been so often said on both sides of the debate – that is regarding whether or not disciples of Christ are ‘under the law’. Accordingly the first article in the series gave an overview of (some of the major) Covenants in the Old Testament (aka the Old Covenant; but more correctly the Old Covenants) in order to establish a biblical foundation to build upon. It is strongly recommended that the article ‘A Covenant-Keeping God’ is read in conjunction with this writing, as it has a fundamental relationship to what follows.
 
This present article gives a background and overview to a very important period in the formative life of the reformed church in Scotland: the focus is on a creedal document which was formulated in the middle of the 17th century and is, in substantial part, an outworking of a theological construct termed 'Covenant Theology'. [The latter is a 'prism' through which some interpret Scripture and should not be confused with the covenants contained in the Bible.]
 
The Westminster Confession of Faith (Note 1.) was essentially drawn up by a committee of English ‘Westminster Divines’ with a handful of senior Scottish churchmen carrying ‘assessor’ status (which allowed them to debate, but not to vote). It has been, and continues to be hugely influential but also the cause of much controversy and debate.
In spite of its English origins, it was only adopted in that country for a short period of four years. However, and in stark contrast it has and continues to the present day to have enormous influence on the structures, beliefs, government, ministries, expectations and traditions of the Presbyterian churches in Scotland and all over the world.
 .

Caveat

It is no purpose whatsoever to create controversy or upset through this writing. Neither, however is it the intention to shrink back from expressing concerns in an unambiguous fashion. Accordingly euphemisms have been avoided for the sake of maintaining clarity.
Additionally and in this context, no significant effort will be expended in this essay on the biblical (supportable) parts of the Confession’s text. Neither (at this stage anyway) will everything that is written be annotated with source references. (The reader is encouraged to do his/her own research; with the ultimate reference being the Word of God. The supplied references relating to the WCF will be expressed in Roman numerals. Note 2.)

Summary

The Westminster Confession of Faith contains much solid teaching on core Christian doctrines. The document has been immensely useful as a statement of many biblical and foundational truths; and as a counter to false teaching since its inception.
 
The Westminster Confession of Faith is permeated with unsupportable statements and also very significant ‘holes’. It is – at once and in parts – deficient, erroneous, ambiguous, unbiblical and extra-biblical. It also strays from defining doctrine into setting out what was and is merely ‘opinion’ – including also matters of church law. It has the characteristics of what one writer described as being a ‘paper Pope’, and become as another has said a ‘golden calf’. In this writer’s view, it has ever been deficient and in error.
Essentially the WCF is a 'child of its time'; a veritable ‘curate’s egg' – a mixture of good and bad; a compendium of Truth, error and omissions; and, at least in the present day, serves the church very badly in a number of areas of Christian life and church practices.
 
The document has caused continuing division amongst those who hold the Word of God in high regard; and has also been demonstrably incapable of maintaining Truth amongst those who don’t. There are very few indeed who believe it all; and probably none who can, from a biblical base, justify all that it contains.
------------------

Introduction and Background

All the Presbyterian churches and denominations in Scotland link back to 1560AD and the Reformation – as a spiritual movement to correct the abuses, excesses and errors within the (Roman) Catholic Church at that time. In that year, John Knox and the five other reformers (all with the Christian name John), formulated a creedal statement entitled the Scots Confession. It was completed in four days.
This ‘Confession’ was however superseded over 80 years later by a document entitled the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) – drawn up from 1643, on instruction issued by the London-based parliament from whence the document’s title derives. Yet in spite of its Westminster origins, the Confession had, as the summary states, only fleeting place in England and in the Anglican Church.
It is also worthwhile noting that the ‘scripture proofs’ were only added on later instruction from the Westminster parliament. Many of these Bible references (aka ‘proof texts’) – appended in postscript fashion – have tenuous relevance to the body text.
 
Paradoxically however, and though the cause of much debate and controversy through the centuries since, the WCF survives and is maintained universally as the subordinate standard of Presbyterian churches in Scotland and indeed around the world (Note 3).
 
The backdrop to the Confession was both religious and political. In Scotland, the reformers (Covenanters) wished not only to eradicate all traces of episcopacy and earthly-sovereign headship, but also saw a chance to extend the Presbyterian system of church government into England. (The Covenanting ideal being that of one church in the nation; with one king under the one true God.)
 
Meanwhile the anti-royalist parliamentarians in England saw advantage in enlisting the Scots in the puritan struggles be break free from the Church of England with the King (Charles I) as its supreme governor. Additionally however there was the perceived need to reduce the threat of Irish-Catholic intervention in the first English civil war (1642 – 1646). After much haggling, these separate and distinct agendas were built into a document called the ‘Solemn League and Covenant’ (dated 1643, and not to be confused with the earlier purely-Scottish ‘National Covenant’ of 1638) – the title reflecting the dual perceptions and purposes.
[The cross-border alliance however later broke down when, in 1649, the English assassinated Charles I (who was not merely the English monarch, but Scotland’s king also); and because the dominant grouping amongst the parliamentary puritans rejected presbyterian church polity in favour of congregationalism. Subsequent to this turn of events, the Scots then ‘changed sides’ and obtained King Charles II signature on the Solemn League and Covenant. The occasion giving rise to Oliver Cromwell’s famous plea to the Scots: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”]
It was within this ambivalent and fluid context that the Westminster Confessions were formulated.

Doctrinal issues

<click on image below for Theology Chart>

From a doctrinal standpoint, much of the WCF is based on a theological construct commonly known as Covenant Theology. The effect of this system of theology on Christian doctrine is profound.
Three of the very important derivative doctrines relate to the view that the church is now ‘Israel’ (i.e. Replacement Theology/Supercessionism); the way ‘the Law’ is understood and applied in NT times (theonomy); and end-time expectations (eschatology).
 
There are many other issues relating (inter alia) to how the church is governed; the relationship with the state; baptism; clergy/laity distinctions; the Sacraments and the administration of same; double predestination which consigns some to hell; and how to understand the prophetic scriptures.
[In the context of the ‘Drilling Down’ series, further articles will be written (d.v.) relating to church/state relationships, the Mosaic Law and legalism.]
 
As affirmed above, the venerated document contains much that is sound and fundamental to the Christian faith. Indeed (as also stated above) in the context of previous centuries, the WCF has served as an ‘anchor in the storms’ of the post-Reformation Presbyterian churches in Scotland. However, the WCF has created storms of its own; and controversies remain to the present day.
 
Over and above these issues, there is a broad agreement amongst many (including the most ardent of its supporters) that the WCF is – simultaneously – seriously deficient, while also being erroneous and unbalanced in many of its thirty-three chapters of creedal statements. (Note 4.) These difficulties are compounded by the fact that the WCF contains 17th-century dictates on church law, and is also dogmatic on subjects that in fact attract a range of differing opinions across the Bible-believing spectrum of the church of Christ. This latter category of problem includes particular views on who should receive baptism; the beliefs relating to Christ’s second coming (eschatology); the way of salvation (soteriology); church government (ecclesiology/prelacy) and church/state relationships.
 
One of the WCF’s most controversial statements labels the Pope as the Antichrist (which pre-supposes a particular eschatology on which there is no universal agreement).
 
There are four very significant problems
relating to the Westminster Confession:
 
 
Concerning these matters, the WCF is questionable in the following areas
(and this list is not exhaustive) –

----------------------------

Closing remarks

Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.

And you do many things like that."                                                   Mark 7:13

Two of the principle tenets of the Reformation were (are?):
‘Sola Scriptura’ (Scripture alone) and ‘Semper Reformanda’ (continually open to reform).
It is the author’s earnest hope and prayer that the 21st-century Presbyterian church will abide by, and be seen to be abiding by these principles, by re-visiting and critically examining the Westminster Confession of Faith as its principal subordinate standard – for the good of the church as the body of Christ, but supremely for the glory of God and the extension of His Kingdom. Amen.

Footnotes:

1. The text of the WCF (with Scripture references) can be found at www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html
Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, is a very convenient and quick reference source. What it lacks in comprehensiveness it gains in neutrality.

Notwithstanding the above, the use of 'hot-links' has been minimised in this article so as not to disadvantage anyone reading the text in hardcopy form. However, on-line reading allows 'pop-up' Bible texts to appear on 'mouse-over' of the Scripture references.
 <return>
2. The original document used Roman numerals and the internet-based copies use the same.
 
3. Splits in the Presbyterian church(es) in Scotland around the turn of the 19th/20thcentury were caused by varying degrees of adherence to the WCF. Qualifying statements and subsequent ecclesiastical legislation have variously modified the extent to which strict adherence is required to all the WCF contains. The terms ‘fundamental doctrines’ and ‘substance of the faith’ have been developed and employed without any definitions of same.
 
In 1989 the APC grouping was formed when the Free Presbyterian Church disciplined an elder (Lord Mackay of Clashfern) for attending friend’s funeral service (Mass) in a Roman Catholic church – which the WCF believes to be the system of the Antichrist.
 
A de facto split in the Free Church of Scotland last year revolved around what is or not permissible in ‘worship’ (as ill-defined yet narrowly-constrained by the WCF).
 
The current fragmentation of the Church of Scotland is producing seceding groups which are (still) wedded to the Westminster Confession in spite of the latter’s failure to maintain a biblical orthodoxy.
 
Most recently controversy has again arisen due to an ‘ecumenical’ service in the isle of Lewis involving Presbyterian clergy along with a Roman Catholic priest (as an ‘agent of the Antichrist).
 <return>
4. In the light of continuing controversy and disagreement relating to the WCF the Church of Scotland's Panel of Doctrine prepared a number of papers on the subject for presentation to the Church. These essays were published under the title The Westminister Confession in the Church Today [St. Andrews Press 1982].
 <return>
5. As stated above, subsequent articles will (d.v.) aim to look at Church/State relationships: the OT laws; Legalism; and Sunday/Sabbath observance (in that order) as part of the ‘Drilling Down’ series.
 
6. The above is a ‘work in progress’. It will most likely be embellished, augmented and corrected (if and where necessary). It is the second in a series; the first being an article entitled ‘A Covenant-keeping God’.
Logged-in site members can use the 'Response' facility below. Any comments from non-members of the site should be made directly to the Editor, and these will be taken account of in the final version.
Indeed considered responses made at this (earlier) stage are viewed as being much more helpful in order to facilitate an ordered discussion at a later date if this indeed transpires. It would be helpful in any responses to quote Scripture.

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(Author: The Editor)

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A Christian teacher who was sacked for speaking about her faith and felt that she was being persecuted by new equality and diversity policies, has been reinstated. (Author: Christian Legal Centre)

Evolution: blind faith and bogus science
Ever have trouble getting to grips with the 'Evolution versus Creation' debate?. Philip Wren says, don't leave it to the scientists - and don't leave evolution's lies to your children. (Author: Philip Wren)

Chinese pastor jailed on far-fetched charge
Alimjan Yimit has been sentenced to 15 years in prison on the apparently contrived charge of "providing state secrets to overseas organizations." (Author: Christians Together)

Prosperity Gospel invades the church
When the Bible speaks about riches it splits down two ways. Heavenly riches are to be sought after; earthly riches are depicted as a snare. (Author: Andrew Strom)

Evil Spirits dominate, manipulate, intimidate
Paul wrote that 'our struggle is not against flesh and blood ....but against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil..' (Author: Sandy Shaw)

R U 2 bi C 2?
Satan wants us to be either flat on our backs or run off our feet. Jesus invited his first disciples to 'Come apart..' If we don't we risk coming apart. (Author: Christians Together)

Suffering Church Sunday - November 2009
The Barnabas Fund is encouraging church congregations to set aside a Sunday in November to remember those who are being persecuted for their faith. (Author: Christians Together)

Danger! Peace and Unity ahead!
In a world threatened by war and division, who can ignore the cries for peace. And the global community is certain of where the trouble lies. (Author: Sword Magazine)

Revivals in the Highlands: Part 1
Rev. Alex Muir has researched how God has worked in the past and speaks of revivals as something that we can long for but not generate. (Author: Alex Muir/Sword Magazine)

A Warning from Wick
A 'vacancy' crisis in Wick raises some serious questions for ministry in the body of Christ at large regarding the building up of God's people. (Author: Christians Together)

The Blindness of Revelation
Can visits from God leave us blinded or resistant even to subsequent moves of the Holy Spirit? (Author: Steve Taylor)

Seer Training: Christian or mysticism
A church in Scotland which is part of a mainstream denomination is running a course on Seer Training. Is this forward thinking or a route into occultic mysticism? (Author: Watchman)

Healing Meetings with John Mellor
Christian Fellowship of Healing (Highlands) are sponsoring a number of meetings in the Inverness and Alness areas for those needing God's healing. (Author: Christian Fellowship of Healing)

Drilling down on Christian issues
Matters over which Christians differ are often predicated on 'fundamentals' which, though viewed as sacrosanct, sometimes lack a biblical foundation. (Author: Christians Together)

Loneliness leads leader to the lost
A Christian pastor has re-awakened a dormant drama interest in order to engage the lost and as a counter to personal loneliness. (Author: Have your say)

Pubs 'n' Boats 'n' Planes 'n' Sundays
A couple of 'archive articles' on Sunday activities relating to and prompted by the pressures by hotels, and boats and planes on the traditions of the Hebrides. (Author: The Editor)

FCC/FCA or FL/CB?
Are the new 'Confessing Fellowships' meeting the needs of the cause of Christ or merely serving as palliatives to feelings of shame and insecurity? (Author: Watchman)

An open letter at a difficult time
At this difficult and distressing time within the body of Christ in Scotland it is good to remember in prayer those who are undergoing trial and upset. (Author: Colin)

Susan and Joanna: enacted parables for our age
Two ladies from very different backgrounds in two very different situations inspired millions: they were enacted parables for our age. (Author: Christians Together)

The Primacy of the Local Church - an oft-subverted truth
The Primacy of the Local Church, as a biblical doctrine, is often rolled out and re-stated when hierarchies stray, but conveniently ignored when peace prevails. (Author: Watchman)

Fellowship of Confessing Churches
With the launch of a new evangelical grouping within the Church of Scotland, we could be seeing a tsunami starting to break upon the shores of the Kirk and the nation. (Author: Christians Together)

Where to the presbyterian church in Scotland?
Woody Allen might have a 'word' for the Church of Scotland as it meets in General Assembly in May. But in spite of the prognosis there is, and has got to be, hope. (Author: Watchman)

Rick Warren on the ropes
Rick Warren, megachurch purpose-driven pastor and friend of President Obama is enmeshed in controversy regarding his stance on gay marriage. (Author: Christians Together)

40 years on
Sandy Shaw is a Nairn-based pastor and teacher. He tells his story of how God spoke to him as a young boy; and 40 years after a fresh empowering of the Holy Spirit. (Author: Sandy Shaw)

Megachurch meltdown?
The wheels were already coming off the megachurch train before the present economic crisis caused it to come crashing into the buffers. (Author: Watchman)

Night Church
A group of Christians who gathered to pray and ask God how to connect with their local community found that their prayers were answered very quickly and in an unexpected way. (Author: Christians Together / Spotlight)

South Africa, Mighty Men and Revival
Angus Buchan is a farmer of Scot's descent who saw 60,000 men gather in South Africa last year. Andrew Strom now sends a follow-up report. (Author: Christians Together)

Obituary for an Old Friend
No one knows how old he was, and a combination of different factors gave rise to a protacted period of debilitating illness which meant that he died in obscurity (Author: The London Times)

Churchgoing not in decline, says Tearfund
Churchgoing is not in decline, according to figures released by Tearfund today which show that one in four adults in the UK attend church at least once a year. (Author: Christians Together)

Search for Alison on iPlayer
A TV programme of Rev. Kenny and Reta MacDonald's search for their daughter Alison who went missing in Kashmir in 1981 is now available on-line; but hurry (Author: Christians Together)

The Kirk on dangerous ground
The national Church of Scotland is moving in a direction which could bring the Kirk into direct conflict with God's purposes for society and the world. (Author: Christians Together)

Christianity and Other Ways to God
A recent poll shows alarming levels of wrong belief amongst American 'Christians' - but it's not a problem confined to America. (Author: Watchman)

The Westminster Confession: past help, present hindrance?
The Westminster Confession of Faith is a creedal document which is placing unbiblical restrictions on believers' remembrance of the Lord's death. (Author: Watchman)

Employee or servant of God?
A legal conundrum involving a Highland minister and his church has implications for the relationship between the church of Christ and the state - the issue behind the 1843 Disruption. (Author: Christians Together)

The Transit Camp
The interregnum between the (spiritual) fall of King Saul and the coronation of David as Israel's king would have been a unsettling time for God's people. A bit like being in a transit camp. (Author: Christians Together)

Little Red Riding Hood and PC
Little Red Riding Hood - and the current levels of control and oppression being exercised through what has become know as Political Correctness. (Author: Bryan Hupperts)

Micah Sunday - prophetic challenge or cop-out?
Christians are being encouraged to lobby politicians to care for the poor around the world. But is this a 'prophetic call' or a hypocritical cop-out? (Author: Watchman)

Christians under pressure
Vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has come under fire in the States, and it seems that evangelicals the world over are coming under real pressure. (Author: Lifebite)

Letter from Muslim leaders to the Pope
In 2006, Muslim scholars wrote to Pope Benedict and other Christian leaders urging greater understanding between the two faiths. The story continues..... (Author: )

Christians apologise for praying during Ramadan
A group of Christians in the city of Oxford have apologised to Muslims for 'having the audacity' of organising a Day of Prayer during Ramadan. (Author: Cranmer Blog)

Crises in church and nation
Three important documents from the Maranatha Community in Manchester. These provide vital information for every intercessor and all those concerned for the church and the nation (Author: Christians Together / Marantha Community)

An Age of Hunger - lessons from recent events
Following the events and recent developments surrounding meetings in Florida, Rev. Dr. Clifford Hill writes on "An Age of [spiritual] Hunger". (Author: Rev. Dr. Clifford Hill)

Prepare for difficult times
Corrie Ten Boom wrote a message in 1974 which she impressed upon David Pawson at the end of her life in this world in 1983. The message is to 'prepare' the people. (Author: Corrie Ten Boom)

The Shaping of Things to Come
A review of the book The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church (Authors Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch) (Author: Eddie Arthur)

Son of Hamas leader comes to Christ
Masab Yousef is the son of a prominent Hamas leader and politician. In an interview with an Israeli media source he tells of his journey to Christ and the true nature of Hamas. (Author: Christians Together)

Christian preachers face arrest in Birmingham
A police community support officer ordered two Christian preachers to stop handing out gospel leaflets in a predominantly Muslim area of Birmingham. (Author: Daily Telegraph)

Organic Church
Organic church life is a grass roots experience that is marked by face-to-face community, every-member functioning, (Author: Frank Viola)

Church Life
Church Life (Author: )


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